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Homage to Władysław Bartoszewski by Marian Turski

Władysław Bartoszewski Image: https://dzieje.pl TSCHÜSS. Grygiel

Władysław Bartoszewski Image: https://dzieje.pl TSCHÜSS. Grygiel




Wladyslaw Bartoszewski would have turned 100 on February 19. In his tribute to Władysław Bartoszewski, Marian Turski pays tribute to the Auschwitz survivor and great Polish statesman.

Homage to Władysław Bartoszewski by Marian Turski

Among the survivors of Auschwitz and other concentration camps, there are several people who have earned special recognition among those who have endeavoured to preserve the historical memory of the Time of Contempt. And without a doubt, they definitely include Władysław Bartoszewski, prisoner of Auschwitz, resistance fighter, prisoner during the Stalinist era, foreign minister of the Republic of Poland after the fall of the Wall, chairman of the International Auschwitz Council which reports to the Polish prime minister, author of several dozen books including historical works and memoirs.

Heinrich Böll once described Władysław Bartoszewski as a fervent and passionate Pole, a fervent and passionate Catholic, a fervent and passionate humanist. It was a very apt description.

Bartoszewski was born exactly one hundred years ago, on 19 February 1922, in Warsaw. He graduated from a Catholic high school in the summer of 1939 before the outbreak of World War II. In the spring of 1940 he started work with the Polish Red Cross. But this work did not protect him from street roundups. He was arrested and taken to Auschwitz after 20 September 1940. The first roll-call remained etched in his memory. Several Kapos (prisoner functionaries) pulled someone from the ranks and beat him with truncheons. “He fell down. They started trampling on him. And we stood there without saying a word, with unseeing eyes. Nobody moved an inch (...)”

A few months later he too was on the verge of death. But the papers showing he worked for the Red Cross still proved effective. From time to time the Nazis freed small groups of prisoners from Auschwitz. And in April 1941 they included Bartoszewski. Many years later he would write: “The conditions I was forced to endure throughout the whole of my youth (...), left me no time to hesitate. I had just one choice: either I accept something that I consider evil, or I refuse to accept it...”

The first thing he did was to write a report about the camp. His report was written anonymously of course: “Auschwitz. Pamiętnik więźnia“ (Auschwitz. Recollections of a Prisoner). It was the first clandestine report on the situation in Auschwitz. He was lucky, or maybe we should say: We were all lucky in that Władysław Bartoszewski, a deeply religious Catholic, encountered a wonderful priest, Father Pater Jan Zieja, in the confessional. That was in the summer of 1942, when the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto began. There he heard the following words: “God wanted you to survive. And why? So that you will become a witness of the truth. So that you, in the knowledge that evil exists, can reassure yourself that good exists. All around us people are suffering. They must be helped. Open your eyes. Look around you. Do you know what is happening in the ghetto?”

That was when Bartoszewski made his second decision. He became an activist in the Council to aid Jews, codenamed “Żegota”, which operated under the auspices of the Polish Government in Exile. And after the war, as a result of the anti-Semitic pogroms in Poland, he co-founded the All-Polish League for the Fight against Racism.

In the 1960s the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem honoured him with the title of Righteous Among the Nations and planted a tree bearing his name. He planted a second tree commemorating the service and commitment of the organisation “Żegota”.

It would be impossible to fit Bartoszewski’s biography into a single volume. But I would like to highlight something that is of particular interest to us as former prisoners of Auschwitz. After Poland regained her sovereignty at the end of the 1980s, Władysław Bartoszewski was appointed Chairman of the International Auschwitz Council nominated by the Polish government. At that time he, together with a select group, including in particular his deputy Professor Israel Gutman, the academic advisor to Yad Vashem and a former prisoner of Auschwitz, carried out the mammoth task of reinstating the truth in the main exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial. For decades half-truths were propagated there, the biggest of which was the concealment of the fact that Jews represented the overwhelming majority of the victims. Bartoszewski’s favourite saying was: “The truth lies not in the middle. The truth lies there where it lies.” And he remained true to this.

And finally, one more of Bartoszewski’s maxims: “If you don’t know how you should behave – just behave decently.” And there really is nothing to add to that.

Marian Turski

President of the International Auschwitz Committee
Auschwitz survivor

to the press release of the International Auschwitz Committee